Do Nuclear Weapons Actually Keep Us Safe?

The evidence is flimsy, but policymakers remain captivated by the idea of nuclear deterrence

Era of escalation: Analysts now see the beginnings of a modest but troubling nuclear arms race. Image Credit: FEMA Photo Library/Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear weapons threats are once again in the news. Last week, North Korea fired numerous missiles, some nuclear-weapon capable, to protest joint U.S.-South Korea drills. Their seventh nuclear test is expected soon. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that an attack on Russian territory—including the parts of Ukraine his forces occupy, which he has formally annexed—could provoke him into a nuclear response. President Biden recently guessed the risk of a Russian nuclear strike is the highest it’s been since the Cuban missile crisis.

Perhaps the situation is even more serious than Biden’s comment suggests. Putin is already indirectly at war with NATO over Ukraine, and there are significant chances of miscalculation on both sides that could lead to an ill-advised nuclear strike. Moreover, like Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet premier during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Putin is a reckless risk-taker.

Putin’s threat should direct more public attention to the U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Has our strong nuclear arsenal actually made us safer or put us more at risk? With the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis just behind us, it seems appropriate to review the rationale of using nuclear weapons as a deterrent and explore why we are currently in a new and unwelcome nuclear arms race.

Shaky Evidence for Deterrence

Two great assumptions drive the rationale for U.S. nuclear policy: These weapons act as a strong deterrent, and they are a viable strategic option for U.S. policy. Both assumptions are dubious, at best.

The Department of Defense is committed to deterrence as the principal justification for nuclear weapons. Citing government documents, a recent study by the Heritage Foundation confidently asserts nuclear weapons act as an important deterrent, claiming that since 1945 they have deterred war among the great powers.

This judgment seems persuasive, but it rests on a counterfactual scenario with no clear evidence of causation. Just because there was no great power war during the Soviet era does not prove nuclear weapons prevented it. The historical record, as argued by political scientist John Mueller in “Atomic Obsession” and by historian Max Hastings in “The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962,” shows that Moscow never had serious plans to invade Europe. The Soviets’ nightmarish losses in World War II probably convinced them to avoid a war with the Western powers, irrespective of which side had more nuclear weapons.

In fact, Hastings’ book on the Cuban missile crisis, the ultimate nuclear showdown, demonstrates why nuclear weapons deterrence sometimes doesn’t work. Worried about the USSR’s comparative lack of nuclear weapons, Khrushchev wanted the nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba to “throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants” and give Washington a real scare. For his part, Cuban leader Fidel Castro welcomed the opportunity for a confrontation with the U.S. Various incidents during those fateful two weeks, including the Soviets shooting down a U2 flight over Cuba and the U.S. Navy dropping practice depth charges on a nuclear-armed Soviet sub, might have touched off a nuclear conflagration. In this case, nuclear arms were destabilizing rather than deterring.

Moreover, nuclear weapons have failed to deter other wars and have had a spotty record of shaping states’ behavior. Since World War II, adversaries to states with nuclear weapons have willingly risked a possible nuclear backlash. In July 1950, North Korean troops overran U.S. troops in South Korea. The U.S. considered using nuclear weapons in response but never followed through. Later that year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army vanquished U.S. forces in North Korea, completely undeterred by our nuclear capability. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam launched major conventional attacks on U.S. forces, daring a nuclear response that never came. As terrible as they were, memories of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings didn’t overawe America’s opponents. Nuclear historian Ward Wilson adds in his “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons” that veiled U.S. threats of potential nuclear weapons use failed to deter the Soviets in the 1948 Berlin crisis or Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.

Other nuclear weapons states have been similarly challenged. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egyptian and Syrian troops attacked Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, knowing that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. In the 1982 Falklands War, Argentina seized British territory apparently without fearing nuclear, or any, retaliation from London.

Lately, some analysts have wondered whether nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine deter Russia from attacking it. After the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. The cost of these former Soviet weapons, over which Kyiv had no command and control, simply was too great, and Ukraine joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Had it retained the weapons, would Ukraine have risked a nuclear exchange with its more powerful neighbor? It is debatable that Russia would have been deterred given its current disdain for casualties, and Ukraine’s nuclear weapons might have made the current conflict even deadlier.

We Support Deterrence, Except When We Don’t

The problem with deterrence is that it relies on decision-makers being rational. Negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis ultimately worked because Kennedy and Khrushchev didn’t want a war. The important audio tapes of President Kennedy’s executive committee meetings reveal Kennedy rejecting the hawkish—if not war-mongering—proposals from his advisers and refusing to risk global catastrophe over nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Kennedy even secretly gave up U.S. nuclear-capable Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which were partially responsible for Khrushchev’s deploying nukes to Cuba in the first place. Kennedy understood the essential truth of war in the nuclear age: It must be avoided.

Despite the narrow escape of the Cuban missile crisis, our current nuclear policy ignores this lesson that the potential damage caused by nuclear weapons simply outweighs any conceivable gains. U.S. nuclear strategy doctrine still proposes we might use these weapons even in the face of non-nuclear threats, and that we would even use them for a preemptive “first use” strike. The Nuclear Posture Reviews by both the Obama and Trump administrations refused to reject a nuclear response to non-nuclear threats, nor would they pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pledging a “no first use” policy would not undermine nuclear deterrence, and it is supported by many nuclear arms experts, but U.S. presidents fear limiting their war-fighting options and undermining our allies’ confidence in our “nuclear umbrella.”

While we no longer use the infamous Single Integrated Operational Plan designed to hurl our whole arsenal at the Soviets and the Chinese—what Henry Kissinger called “a horror strategy”—recent operation plans see nuclear weapons as part of an overall response strategy, even including less powerful “low-yield” nuclear weapons. The 2017 Nuclear Posture Review called for low-yield nuclear weapons for submarines, which began to be deployed in 2020. Making nuclear weapons useful has long been a quixotic goal of the Pentagon.

These plans may provide some justification for the U.S. nuclear arsenal of 5,500 weapons costing about $60 billion per year, but the costs still outweigh the benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that upgrades to our nuclear force will cost more than $634 billion between 2021 and 2030. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains committed to a redundant “nuclear triad,” featuring bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles in fixed silos and ballistic missile submarines, that goes far beyond our deterrence needs. America’s 400 fixed silos make the Midwest an enormous target. In defense parlance, this area is sometimes known as a “nuclear sponge” that will absorb enemy attacks, according to former defense secretary William Perry and Tom Z. Collina in their eye-opening book, “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.”

A New Era of Escalation?

Most nuclear-capable states haven’t seen enough of a risk of interstate war to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite clinging to the remnants of a Cold War nuclear policy, the U.S. itself did succeed in reducing nuclear weapons. But its commitment to nonproliferation has been inconsistent.

In the 1990s the bipartisan Cooperative Threat Reduction program to help former Soviet republics decommission their nuclear weapons was one of the most enlightened and successful initiatives in U.S. foreign policy history. In 2010, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty succeeded in mothballing hundreds of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and has been extended until 2026. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review boasted that we had reduced our nuclear arsenal by 75%. Today, nonproliferation is still an international norm, with only a few states acting as outliers.

Nevertheless, analysts now see the beginnings of a modest but troubling nuclear arms race. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the nine countries with nuclear weapons are all either expanding or upgrading their arsenals. Russia has also been increasing its tactical nuclear weapons. Perhaps more ominously, the Chinese, after years of maintaining a modest nuclear force, are currently constructing 300 nuclear silos. Given China’s quest for parity with the U.S. in other military areas, it seems likely Beijing will expand its nuclear capability beyond its small deterrent force. Although missile defense has failed to make us safer, it might be spurring the Russians and the Chinese to increase their arsenals, out of fear we are preparing the capacity for a successful first strike.

Besides the irrational ambitions of other state actors, another reason for America’s escalation of nuclear capability might be its own ambiguity concerning nuclear arms control. Instead of renegotiating older treaties and pushing for more arms reduction, the U.S. has walked away from them. Since 2001, the U.S. has abandoned several arms control treaties, a move that probably has contributed to the current arms race. The George W. Bush administration’s decision to back out of the Cold War era’s Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has spurred more research on ground midrange defense systems that attempt to intercept ballistic missiles before they enter the atmosphere. The U.S. government has spent $350 billion on these systems.

Likewise, the U.S. removed another prop to arms control by allowing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the Reagan administration’s signature arms control achievement, to expire in 2018. We accused the Russians of violating the treaty, but we also announced our readiness to deploy new intermediate-range missiles too.

Our nuclear arms control missteps are not limited to the Russians. In 2002 we backed out of the “Agreed Framework” with the North Koreans to assist with their nuclear energy program, which led them to develop their own bomb-making capacity by 2006. In 2018, we abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran that limited Iran’s ability to fuel a potential nuclear warhead. Now we are trying to revive the plan, but stakes are much higher. According to U.S. officials, Tehran probably has enough enriched uranium to construct several atomic weapons, which they didn’t have when the U.S. backed out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan.

In its new National Security Strategy, the Biden administration pledges to “head off costly arms races,” but it will have much work to do in restoring some stability in the international nuclear arms race. As the former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb noted about the Cuban missile crisis, the real lesson for nuclear weapons negotiations is the need to compromise.

We have an urgent need to challenge our current thinking on nuclear arms. It’s hard to identify a government program that is more expensive, counterproductive and detached from reality than our nuclear weapons policy. Democrats often have the right ideas but lack the courage of their convictions in the face of defense bureaucracy. Past Republican leaders, such as Ronald Reagan and John McCain, used to recognize the costs and the dangers, but this clear-eyed view is much less evident in the GOP today. Given the public’s consistent view that nuclear weapons should only be used in retaliation for a nuclear attack, ample political support probably exists to revive the consensus of the 1990s and challenge erroneous status-quo thinking on nuclear weapons.


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